Complaint against Fish and Wildlife 'premature'

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

It's too early for two California water agencies to legally challenge a pending conservation plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, according to a federal judge.

The Central Delta Water Agency and the South Delta Water Agency filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies earlier this year.

The plaintiffs claimed the agencies had violated federal environmental and administrative laws in developing the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The plan, which has not yet been finished, aims to restore habitat for federally-protected species while continuing to meet the needs of water users.

Farmers rely on the Delta to irrigate about 4 million acres of farmland, and the estuary provides water to two-thirds of California's population.

Concerns about the effect of water projects on the Delta's ecosystem have prompted authorities to seek a major restructuring of the water delivery system.

A steering committee of federal and state agencies, local water agencies and non-profit groups has been guiding the conservation plan's development since 2006.

Plaintiffs claim the committee has been overly ambiguous in draft documents related to the plan.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the complaint was premature because the federal government hasn't made any final decisions.

Dante Nomellini, manager and attorney for the Central Valley Water Agency, said his group fears the committee will simply "rubber stamp" a plan with damaging effects for water users in northern California.

"We don't think they're following the procedures they're required to follow," he said.

Nomellini suspects the plan is being used to approve a peripheral canal which would divert water directly from the Sacramento River into export pumps that would send water to irrigators to the south.

Irrigators who rely on the Delta fear that such a canal would harm irrigators in the northern part of the state, as well as the ecosystem's health, Nomellini said.

Irrigators to the south are only legally allowed to divert water that is surplus to the northern water users' needs, he said.

"I view it as a water grab," he said.

Sarah Woolf, spokesperson for the Westlands Water District -- which would benefit from a peripheral canal -- said the plaintiff's lawsuit was untimely.

"There's not even a document for them to sue on," she said. "There is no final outcome."

Even so, several studies have indicated a peripheral canal would be the most effective solution to the state's water problem, Woolf said.

Woolf denied the plan would amount to a water grab, since water users to the south would not divert additional water, she said.

"We're figuring out a way to deliver the water that was contracted to water users when the system was built," she said.

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: mperkowski@capitalpress.com.

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